Bomb casts al-Qaeda shadow on heart of Pakistan

A suicide bomb attack that killed 19 people in Lahore, which had been a haven from violence, demonstrates an intensifying show-down with militants at a time when Pakistan is in a volatile political flux.

The blast in the country’s political nerve centre on Thursday, near the High Court on the historic Mall boulevard, carried an ominous message ahead of February’s national election.

That vote is deemed vital to the future of United States ally President Pervez Musharraf.

While other cities reeled under a wave of suicide attacks last year which killed hundreds of people and climaxed with the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi on December 27, Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, was untouched.

Now, nowhere is safe.

“We fear that we are becoming Iraq, we are becoming Afghanistan,” said Faryal Gohar, a television writer and rights activist, after laying a wreath at the curtained-off site of the blast, which killed 16 police and three passers-by.

The West shudders at the thought of nuclear-armed Pakistan sliding into chaos with Islamist extremists at the gates of Islamabad. Sections of the Western media say Pakistan is the most dangerous country on the planet.

Many Pakistanis live in virtual denial of the scale of the threat, and believe there is some grand conspiracy to take away Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, but realisation of the internal threat is dawning.

“I couldn’t care less about our nuclear assets. The people of Pakistan are our assets,” said Gohar, pulling an elegant brown Kashmiri shawl round her shoulders as she berated Musharraf and the past and present policies that have locked Pakistan into what she and many others believe is a self-destructive relationship with the US.

Even if the man who blew himself up in Lahore wasn’t part of al-Qaeda’s network, there is little doubt where he got his inspiration.
Al-Qaeda has plenty of proxies in Pakistan.

The government doesn’t broadcast its own alarm, but close aides of Musharraf say privately that al-Qaeda’s long-term goal is to destabilise Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to turn them into a home for global jihadis.

Because Musharraf’s grip appears shaky, there are fears the government will use the dire security situation to put off an election that was already postponed after Bhutto’s death.

Delaying democracy, according to opposition politicians and some Western think-tanks, would be a recipe for more violence. A rigged election that pushes the losers into street demonstrations was another worst-case scenario.

“Pakistan will be in chaos,” said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political analyst at Lahore University of Management Sciences.

All bets are off

Musharraf is not running in the February 18 election. He secured his own second five-year term last November after imposing emergency rule. But the February vote’s outcome could seal the military-backed president’s fate.

He stepped down as army chief in late November. If support from the army wavers, he will lose all power, analysts say.

They reckon massive rigging and dirty tricks by the intelligence agencies would be required for Musharraf’s old political friends to emerge winners in the poll. He has said he will resign if the next Parliament moves to impeach him.

Analysts see two alternatives. One is that Musharraf reaches an understanding with Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, which may yet be possible, even if it seems unlikely in today’s bitter climate.

The other is that the parties of Zardari and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif gang up to bring Musharraf down. Sharif would like nothing better than to unseat the general who ousted him in a 1999 coup.

Fewer and fewer people have faith in Musharraf’s ability to provide security or fulfil a vow to usher in real democracy.

He gets blamed for almost everything bad, and many say Pakistan can’t move forward with him at the helm.

“I’m optimistic that if this government goes the terrorism will soon disappear,” said Hamid Zaman, a leading member of the Concerned Citizens Forum.

That’s a forlorn hope, according to analysts who say the coalition of al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Pakistani jihadis is stronger than ever.

Someone else might be able to run Pakistan better. Democratic institutions might grow stronger, they say.

But Musharraf’s departure won’t undo ties forged between urban jihadis from Punjab and tribal zealots from the remote badlands of North West Frontier Province.

Nor will it automatically clean out any bad apples in Pakistan’s security agencies covertly helping them. - Reuters

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